Book Review: Empires of the Sky

By Scott Spangler on June 29th, 2020

A Concise Look at Human Flight with an Unexpected Focus

eosWith my knowledge bank bereft all but the most rudimentary information about Zeppelins (aka rigid airships), my curious eye immediately focused on the tail end of the Zeppelin under the title, Empires of the Sky. (Following the airship to the backside of the dust cover identified it as the Graf Zeppelin.) The subhead of Alexander Rose’s 600-page tome—Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World—lured me between the covers.

I assumed that German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the eponymous airship’s creator, might be one of them. Or maybe it was Hugo Eckener, who turned them into a reliable form of air transportation (at least until the Hindenburg arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 6, 1937). But who was the other? It was someone I would have never considered—Juan Trippe, of Pan American Airways.

This at first seemed an odd couple, but as I read, it was a genius paring because both men were pursuing the same goal, to provide reliable transatlantic air service. And it provided an important perspective, refocusing my grouping of things that fly and things that do not. Rose set the stages for his book by sharing Octave Chanute’s concise explanation of the two camps hoping to solve the problem of flight more than a century ago.

Writing Aerial Navigation in 1891, Chanute’s two competing schools were addressing the challenges of flight:

“1: AERONAUTS, who believe that success is to come through some sort of balloon, and that the apparatus must be lighter than the air which it displaces.

“2: AVIATORS, who point to the birds, believe that the apparatus must be heavier than air, and hope for success by purely mechanical means.

“Curiously enough, there seems to be very little concert of study between these two schools. Each believes the other so wrong as to have no chance of ultimate success.”

Rose starts with the aeronauts, because they flew first. In elegantly crafted prose, he brings aerostat novices up to speed on the contributing experimenters and the technological contributions. And then he reveals an elegant surprise. Ferdinand Zeppelin made his first flight in a tethered balloon in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 19, 1863, with one Professor Steiner, late of the Union balloon corps. A military officer, Zeppelin witnessed balloon mail from Paris in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War.

ZeppelinLZ127a wikiFour years later, following a fall from his horse, he awoke from a “fevered dream” in which he saw the flimsy predecessor of what would become his eponymous Zeppelin, so named by his volunteer PR man, Hugo Eckener, who went on to take over the company following Zeppelin’s death. Rose evenly balanced the human aspects of the story with the technological side that ranged from the development of the rigid air ships and their duralumin metallurgy to their military service during World War I.

Empires of the Sky also takes an illuminating look at American airship efforts and their ties to Germany. And Rose devotes an equal measure of research to the camp of aviators. Here I found fewer rewarding surprises, but there were a good number of them. Most of them told the Pan Am story, how it developed its flying boats and established its Pacific and then Atlantic routes. While I can appreciate what Trippe and Pan Am achieved, I learned that how he achieved them would hold him in good stead in the cutthroat, backroom backstabbing corporate culture of the 21st century.

Whether you lean toward Team Aeronaut or Team Aviator, or you are interested in learning more about them and how they came to be, Empires of the Sky is a rewarding and worthwhile investment of your time. I do have one caveat, however, don’t start reading it after dinner when you have to be at work the next morning. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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